Dorris Henderson

US folk singer who settled in London

Dorris Henderson cut an unforgettable figure on the emergent British folk-music scene of the mid-1960s. Vivacious and mini-skirted, she had a rich voice and a richer personality. The sight of a wisecracking autoharp-playing black American made a lively impact on the burgeoning UK folk movement; and her musical partnership with John Renbourn helped launch his reputation and career as one of the generation's most exciting guitarists.

Dorris Henderson, singer: born Lakeland, Florida 1933; married Mac McGann (one son, two daughters); died London 3 March 2005.

Dorris Henderson cut an unforgettable figure on the emergent British folk-music scene of the mid-1960s. Vivacious and mini-skirted, she had a rich voice and a richer personality. The sight of a wisecracking autoharp-playing black American made a lively impact on the burgeoning UK folk movement; and her musical partnership with John Renbourn helped launch his reputation and career as one of the generation's most exciting guitarists.

She steadfastly refused to conform to expectations, rejecting the blues and spirituals expected of black singers of the time in favour of traditional folk song and the bold contemporary songs of young writers like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. She even joined one of the folk-rock bands of the day, Eclection, and played the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969 with, among others, Bob Dylan.

The daughter of a clergyman and the granddaughter of a pure Blackfoot Indian, Dorris Henderson was born in Lakeland, Florida, but raised in Los Angeles. She started working for the civil service but seeing the iconic folk-blues singer Odetta perform one night at the Ash Grove in LA changed her life.

She became a regular at the jazz clubs on Sunset Boulevard, where she saw many of the greats like Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and Carmen McCrae and, armed with an autoharp and a copy of Alan Lomax's songbook The Folk Songs of North America, started performing herself.

Singing at a healthfood restaurant at Topanga Canyon, one day she met the left-field comedian/raconteur/poet Lord Buckley, who invited her to join him on stage at a series of shows in Hollywood. She ended up singing "Rock of Ages" while Buckley performed his classic "The Nazz" party piece on a live album and dubbed her "The Lady Dorris".

Henderson decided to embark on a full-time singing career, and arrived in New York at the time of the Greenwich Village folk boom. She became friends with most of the main movers and shakers of the period, including Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. She appeared briefly in the notorious 1967 Dylan film Don't Look Back and recorded one of the first Paul Simon covers with the single "Leaves That Are Green".

Encouraged by her brother serving in England in the air force, she decided on a whim to come to London. She didn't know a soul but stayed at a hostel in Hampstead and wound up at the Earl's Court folk club the Troubadour. One guest spot playing Appalachian ballads on her autoharp and she was on her way. Gigs followed and she became resident on a new BBC2 television show, Gadzooks! It's All Happening, whose guests included Tom Jones, Lulu, Sandie Shaw and many other pop stars of the day.

One night at the Roundhouse pub in Soho she met a young guitarist, John Renbourn, and invited him to be her accompanist. They recorded two albums together, There You Go (1965) - which included a cover of Dylan's "Mr Tambourine Man" and Cyril Tawney's "Sally Free and Easy" - and Watch the Stars (1967), with a stirring version of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child".

The partnership with Renbourn fizzled out as he went on to develop a groundbreaking partnership with another brilliant guitarist, Bert Jansch, before they both launched the internationally successful Pentangle. Instead, Henderson accepted an invitation to replace the Australian Kerrilee Male as singer with the band Eclection, which featured Trevor Lucas (who later married Sandy Denny and played with Fotheringay and Fairport Convention). Later, she went back to the notion of a progressive folk-jazz-rock band, forming Dorris Henderson's Eclection, with her son Eric Jones on guitar.

She married the guitarist Mac McGann, formerly with the Levee Breakers, but largely dropped out of music for two decades, living in Twickenham, raising a family and confining her singing to the house and low-key pub appearances. She sang on a few television jingles and occasionally performed with Bob Kerr's band, but it took a reissue of the There You Go album in 1999 to inspire a serious comeback.

In 2003 she released Here I Go Again, a brand-new album encompassing traditional folk, blues, jazz, poetry and her own songs that she described as "my musical autobiography". It featured John Renbourn as well as old colleagues from Eclection and proved that even at the age of 70 she was still a bundle of vitality, character and charm.

Colin Irwin

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